The Power of Superbowl Ads? A Social Audience

Ads alone don't work, but the buzz they trigger does.

Posted Feb 07, 2021

A TV commercial is a fleeting moment: advertisers get 15 seconds, 30 seconds, 60 seconds when companies have a lot of money to buy air time, to communicate their message. That's barely enough time to catch our attention and hardly sufficient to get the message to stick. But the power of an ad is not so much from the ad itself, but from the buzz it generates.

Here lies the power of the Super Bowl. Not just a large audience, but a social audience. On Super Bowl Sunday—in a normal year—people gather to watch the game (and the half time show and the ads), but they mostly gather to socialize. Guacamole and chips, beer and chicken wings, and all sorts of appetizers are all designed to fuel happy, engaged, sometimes passionate conversations. The commercials have become an integral part of the Super Bowl experience. Many people enjoy watching the ads, talking about them, and sharing them. Some people only watch the Super Bowl for the ads.

All this socialization is the greatest booster for an ad's influence. A lot of advertising research shows that a message in and of itself is not as influential as the conversations that message generates. We are much more likely to listen to and trust what someone tells us rather than what an ad tells us. So if the ad can get people talking, they will do the advertising themselves.   

TV viewing, and live events especially, are highly social experiences. Many people watch TV while on social media. In our latest blog post on how people navigate TV, my coauthors and I witnessed how consumers move seamlessly between screens, devices, and have conversations with others right as they watch TV.  

Advertisers know this. This is why this year again the cost of commercials during the Super Bowl has skyrocketed: $5.6 million for a 30-second spot, according to the analytics firm Kantar. Advertisers are paying, not just for the air time during the game, but for the opportunity to get people engaged with their ads. In fact, ads are now "leaked" ahead of time so the buzz can start early. Of course, these ads are not leaked at all but strategically released as the excitement for the game builds up in the few days before Super Bowl Sunday. 

The best Super Bowl ads are those that make people talk. Those that tug at our heartstrings like this year's Toyota ad featuring 13-time Paralympic gold medalist Jessica Long. Those that make us laugh and that we can watch over and over again. As we talk about these ads, we boost their influence.

And, this year, the winners will likely be those ads that prompt us to talk about what a crazy time this is. For instance, people might chat about the conspicuous absence of Budweiser commercials. Its home company Anheuser-Busch has instead donated the money it would have otherwise spent on Super Bowl ads to non-profit organizations like the Ad Council to educate the public about the COVID-19 vaccine. 

So let's remember that when we talk about ads, we do advertisers' job for them. And we're not even getting paid for doing it. Now that's worth the millions of dollars advertisers might spend on Super Bowl Sunday. 


Feiereisen, Stéphanie, Dina Rasolofoarison, Cristel A. Russell, and Hope Jensen Schau (2021), “One Brand, Many Trajectories: Narrative Navigation in Transmedia,” Journal of Consumer Research, (forthcoming).

Hewett, Kelly, William Rand, Roland T. Rust, and Harald J. van Heerde (2016), “Brand Buzz in the Echoverse,” Journal of Marketing, 80, (3), 1–24.

Noguti, Valeria and Cristel A. Russell (2014), “Normative Influences on Product Placement Effects: Alcohol Brands in Television Series and The Influence of Presumed Influence,” Journal of Advertising, 43 (1), 46-62.